Russia’s aggression against Ukraine inevitably became a catalyst for many current problems and, of course, a source of new ones. When it comes to Serbia, among others, the issue of its relationship with the EU, with all its various aspects – from economic, to political, security and values – became even more severe. What’s been clear for years became even more visible – that the relationship between Serbia and the EU is actually a relationship of mutual endless tactics. In such circumstances, the problems in the “Western Balkans” got a dangerous new dynamic, instead of the region moving towards their peaceful solution.
The EU has a direct interest in preventing Russian and Chinese influence from prevailing in Serbia, and – with the current Serbian regime, which has ruined it as a state – probably nothing more than that. The EU is ready to pay for this suppression of Russian and Chinese influence – both financially and politically. It consciously participates in the charade of the European integration process of Serbia, gives access to some funds, opens some clusters, thereby also benefiting European capital, probably even more than if Serbia was a member of the EU. However, it is clear to everyone that, in this setup, accession is not possible, both because of the situation in the EU and the situation in Serbia. In the end, although there is no evidence that Serbia could move in that direction, the EU keeps open the possibility that, at some point, Serbia will still agree to the terms and criteria of membership, which for now seems increasingly unlikely, almost impossible. The political system in Serbia has regressed below the democratic minimum and, without radical changes, which are currently not even hinted at, there is no chance for the restoration of democracy in Serbia, while the mere fact that there are similar phenomena in the EU does not mean that the EU would receive such new members. On the contrary.
On the other hand, Serbia responds by pretending that it is “on the European path” because it wants to use money from the EU accession funds, and because its plucky chieftain cares about maintaining the status of some kind of actor in international politics (although his objective reach is the same as his namesake Lukashenko). He needs the absolute stability of absolute power, insurance against any potential challenge (including foreign ones), and this is where this apparently bizarre, but actually easily explainable position of Serbia in relation to the EU comes from. In the end, it is useful for Vucic to have even the vague possibility of such an outcome as Serbia’s membership in the EU (on the condition that Serbia remains a stable autocracy). Because – why not? It isn’t binding, and such a perspective creates an infinitely comfortable position. At the same time, regimes like the ones in Hungary or Poland create the basis for every autocrat – at first glance justified – to think that democracy and the rule of law are not actually conditions for membership, so if it turns out to be in the interest of the regime – that option should be kept open. In the end, it is a kind of insurance even if the EU changes its current approach, above all towards Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro, and shows readiness to rapidly admit these three countries into membership, along with Kosovo’s entry into NATO. Only then would Serbia’s room for maneuver be narrowed and directed entirely towards EU membership.
However, as already said, it is clear to everyone that – under the current circumstances and without some miraculous changes – Serbia’s membership in the EU is not an option at all: the EU wants Serbia to meet the membership criteria and Serbia wants in only if it doesn’t have to change anything (which does not mean only the status of Kosovo). These are irreconcilable positions. Although there is no doubt that economic growth and the standard of living in Serbia would be higher if Serbia were a member of the EU, it is not certain that greater growth and a higher standard are really the things that the citizens of Serbia strive for. Vucic has managed to achieve (from his own perspective, which the majority accepts for various reasons) probably the optimal balance of personal interests and interests of his party and clientele, coupled with at least some level of economic growth and a tolerable standard of living for the majority (or fear of deterioration of that standard in the event of some significant change, which maintains the status quo) and, finally, the national interest (as the majority in Serbia understands it). The latter was achieved, first of all, by resisting calls to “solve Kosovo” with an outcome which is unacceptable for the majority in Serbia. When you add to that constant posturing in front of the neighbors, constant criticism of the West and manumission to the ruler from the Kremlin, the aspect of “national pride” is very well “covered.” Hence, the nationalist outcry against the “traitor Vucic” seems truly comical: his nationalist credit from the 1990s is unattainable for all modern right-wing critics, and the regime’s contemporary propaganda gives no reason for the “average nationalist” to blame Vucic for anything. In a certain way, the persistent fueling of nationalist paranoia by real and manufactured critics of the regime on the right, as well as the complete disregard by the regime’s critics for the destruction of democracy and institutions, suits Vucic perfectly. But that’s another topic.
Taken separately, each of the mentioned segments is far from ideal, often even from truly acceptable, but, when taken cumulatively – they make a positive political score. The calculation is actually very good: economic growth is low, but it exists and the situation is not deteriorating, except in general crisis situations, such as the current one; the standard is unsatisfactory, but it is not such as to cause social unrest, and to the extent that it is intolerable, it is compensated by a successful deception of hungry stomachs – Kosovo that we “won’t give up,” Mile from Republika Srpska, moldy chauvinist propaganda in relation to neighbors and other weapons in the arsenal of “false consciousness” production and compensation for social difficulties.
When it comes to Kosovo, it is true that the Brussels agreements dramatically lowered the criteria for “not agreeing to independence,” but Vucic will not take that key step – the recognition of independence. He has only two red lines he will not compromise in his political activities: maintaining his own rule, and Kosovo. Obsessed with his historical role (along with appropriate financial compensation for “services to the people”), he is convinced that he is allowed everything, except to “betray Kosovo,” for which he believes the Serbs would never forgive him. Therefore, he will never do that, even though he may have been ready for such a move at the beginning. But the circumstances have changed since then, the EU and the entire West got into a very confusing position where no one is really convinced that Serbia has to recognize the independence of Kosovo any more.
Today, in the chaotic circumstances in the EU, it may seem that the policy of the regime in Serbia is actually successful. Serbia is not internationally isolated, it is not in a constant economic crisis, instead it is experiencing some level of growth, and there is no real pressure to recognize Kosovo. Democracy, the rule of law and a regular political process are obviously not priorities for the citizens of Serbia, and the regime has made sure that they never become priorities, which, by the way, was devastatingly easy to achieve.
The problem, however, is that regional relations are such that they will inevitably generate a high level of instability in the future. Although nothing would be more reasonable than the widest possible level of pan-Balkan cooperation (which I wrote about a couple of years ago), this kind of “open Balkans” project that the regime in Serbia is pushing is a simple colorful lie that would actually further distance the region from solving political problems, which suits Serbia best. It is easy to see that the “open Balkans” formula is economic cooperation + ethno-chauvinist hatred, which is constantly bubbling up in the media in Serbia. It’s that stupid platitude: we don’t have to love each other, but we have to cooperate. Of course, in the very essence of things, there must be mutual respect, the building of trust that goes beyond just opening companies and some sorts of investments. The mantra that economic cooperation will deepen trust is foolishness, especially in circumstances when all propaganda is aimed at maintaining inter-ethnic tensions and occasionally even igniting them.
Serbia has made it more or less clear that it absolutely does not accept the independence of Kosovo, and it is also clear that it has not abandoned its aspirations towards Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. Even if we ignore the direct promoters of the radical rearrangement of the borders in the Balkans, who, although ideologically very influential, are not politically established in power (with some painful exceptions), nobody in Serbia, ranging from the current regime to the radical right-wing opposition (and “opposition”) accepts the slightest responsibility on the Serbian side for the events of the 1990s (apart from a few war crimes, but war is war, after all, why all this drama?). Frustration over the outcome of the wars of the nineties (especially with regard to the state borders of Serbia) is systematically maintained. With the exception of a few very rare, individual examples of the pro-Western right, according to the understanding of almost all right-wing options in Serbia – political, intellectual, the mostly right-oriented media – the culprits for the outcomes of the 1990s can be found exclusively outside of Serbia, and the Serbian people are mere victims of the West and neighboring nations. Such an understanding of the post-Yugoslav realities shows that Serbia is determined to keep open all the issues of the immediate past that brought only unfavorable outcomes – without any responsibility on its part.
For now, it is clear that Serbia does not have the possibility to close the issues that concern it in a way that would satisfy it. What it can do is keep those issues open. At the same time, this is not exclusive to Serbia: anyone who suffered defeats, but was not completely broken, would do (and in similar situations has done) the same. No country that does not recognize its own interest in renouncing territorial aspirations or that is not forced to give them up will do so. And no country, throughout history, has. At the same time, it is impossible to force Serbia to change its position on this issue: no country can be exposed to sanctions, bombings and other forms of overwhelming pressure merely because it does not recognize something or because it believes that it has been territorially and otherwise harmed. It is also impossible for anyone else to be forced to change their position for the sake of some concessions to Serbia, and it is practically impossible to find a compromise. It is clear, then, that there is no peaceful solution.
The consequences of such a constellation are clear: peace in the Balkans won’t be a given for long. Russia’s increasingly certain victory in Ukraine will give an additional push – if only psychologically – to everyone in Serbia who believes that a “revision of the defeat” is possible. That is why right-wing and conservative political analysts keep repeating that “Serbia’s fate is being decided in Ukraine.” The only thing missing to start the war machine is some breach in the NATO alliance, which will inevitably appear with the increasingly obvious strengthening of national egoism in the member states. Coupled with a loss of interest from the US for Kosovo’s independence and survival of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state, which is no longer that unimaginable under some new republican administration, the probability of a new conflict increases manifold. We should not rule out the appearance of “pragmatic” governments in the most powerful states of the West, which will ultimately leave the open issues of the European periphery to be resolved on the basis of the balance of power. Under the given circumstances and without significant changes in the relationship of the EU and the West towards the Western Balkans, this is an outcome that is becoming more likely than the miracle of regional peace and prosperity within the ostensibly open Balkans or within the EU. Serbia, admittedly, probably does not have a lot of chances for success in such an undertaking, but it also has too many hot heads, which is enough for a new cycle of conflict. Finally, it shouldn’t surprise us too much if one or two seemingly unexpected allies pop up in the region.
Translated by Marijana Simic
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